Microsoft goes vague on Windows 10 support

When it comes to Windows 10, Microsoft keeps talking about the "supported lifetime of the device." Just what the company means by that remains open to interpretation.

Microsoft is hanging a lot of Windows 10 on a single phrase: "supported lifetime of the device."

That line, which Microsoft has been using since January, should, when the company eventually decides to tell customers what it means, unlock answers -- answers to questions about Windows 10 that have arisen because this year's new OS is so different from its forerunners.

Questions like: How long will users receive free feature and functionality updates, and the free upgrades that Microsoft keeps talking about? And how long will users receive free security updates, the patches that Microsoft issues to plug the inevitable holes in its software?

What they've said from Redmond

As a recap, here's what Microsoft has said so far about the magic phrase.

"This is so much more ... than a free one-time upgrade," said Terry Myerson, who leads the operating systems group, in January while announcing the unprecedented free offer. "Once a device is upgraded to Windows 10, we will be keeping it current for the supported lifetime of the device [emphasis added]."

Then last Monday, Myerson added the phrase to security in a blog post that also revealed the OS's July 29 release date. "And Windows 10 provides the most secure platform ever, including Windows Defender for free anti-malware protection, and being the only platform with a commitment to deliver free ongoing security updates for the supported lifetime of the device [emphasis added]."

New phrase, new regime?

The phrase is not only new to discussions about Windows, but the fact that it even came up signals that the old regime of support won't apply to Windows 10.

How about another recap?

For decades Microsoft has provided free support for each edition of Windows for a 10-year stretch. The first five, called "Mainstream" support, consists of both security patches and non-security updates, with the latter almost always limited to bug fixes. During the second five-year span, dubbed "Extended" support, Microsoft delivers only security updates.

While the 10-year support policy wasn't changed when Windows 8 launched in 2012, Microsoft did alter what it gave users beginning with 2013's Windows 8.1. Then, Microsoft also tossed new features and functionality into the free update barrel.

Because Microsoft's been applying the "supported lifetime of the device" label, increasingly so, the suspicion is that it's planning to change its long-running 10-year support practice.

"Before, you got 10 years of support, then the 5 + 5," said Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, referring to Mainstream and Extended support. "We can reasonably assume that [with Windows 10] it's something less than 10 years, possibly less than 5."

Miller's reasoning? If Windows 10 is be supported for 10 years, as will be Windows 8 (which exits support in early 2023) and Windows 7 (early 2020), Microsoft wouldn't have brought up the "supported lifetime of the device" line to begin with.

There's always an exception

Leading credence to the you-don't-need-a-weatherman-to-know-which-way-the-wind-blows theory is the exception to the new tagline.

Devices running Windows Enterprise -- the edition sold only to customers via enterprise agreements (EAs), usually with the Software Assurance (SA) annuity upgrade -- are locked down onto what Microsoft calls the "long-term servicing branch" (LTSB) and have been the only ones definitively called out as receiving support for the usual decade.

Devices tied to the LTSB -- one of three update "tracks" Microsoft will maintain as part of its push toward a constant and regular refresh schedule -- will receive only security and other critical fixes. Those systems will not receive new features and functionality upgrades, although periodically the firm will roll-up changes into new LTSB builds that companies and organizations can optionally accept.

LTSB devices, Microsoft has said, will receive the usual 5 + 5 support.

"Look at the enterprise side," said Miller. "Those people pay a premium, so you can carry those people [with long-term support] because they're paying that premium."

What does '...supported lifetime of the device' mean?

Microsoft's not saying, at least yet. Last week, when asked to clarify Myerson's latest use of the phrase, specifically about security updates, Microsoft declined, as before.

"We will have more to share soon," a spokesperson said, using Redmond's boilerplate when the company doesn't care to throw light on a subject. But the company has left at least one clue what the phrase will mean.

In a late-April meeting with Wall Street analysts, CFO Amy Hood spelled out how Microsoft will defer revenue from Windows 10, a necessity because it has promised to provide new features and enhancements free to users of the OS.

Hood said the lifetime of the deferral will be based on the device type. "Estimated useful lives will be determined by form factor. As a result deferral periods may vary," a slide she showed analysts stated.

There's almost certainly a direct link between the length of the deferral and the supported lifetime of a Windows 10 device: The reason for the deferral, after all, is to account for the free updates Microsoft will provide.

Hood declined to tell Wall Street what the deferral and device lifetimes will be. "As we get closer to the impact, [we will] share the exact details on lifecycles, how long the time will be," she said.

Microsoft's use of "form factor" could mean it will set support and deferral periods based on the type of device: notebooks, 2-in-1s, desktops, tablets or smartphones. A tablet's support lifetime, for instance, could top out a two years, while a notebook's could be pegged at three and a desktop at four.

Or Microsoft may define form factors by screen size, as it already does to some degree, separating smaller devices like smartphones and tinier tablets from everything else.

Hood's talk about revenue deferral also indicates that "supported lifetime of the device" will apply to all Windows 10 copies -- with the exception of Enterprise under LTSB -- not just those given away to consumers and small businesses in the one-year span of the free upgrade offer.

Why the magic phrase matters

While Microsoft has repeatedly said that the Windows 10 upgrade will be free to eligible Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 users, it has so far said that support -- both feature/functionality and security updates -- will not last the lifetime of the device, but the support lifetime.

Windows users are used to the very-long support timespans, and while there's an outside chance that all of Microsoft's verbiage may result with the same 10-year stretch, that seems unlikely, as Miller pointed out. Instead, free support -- the "free" part has also been stressed by Microsoft -- may be offered for less time, perhaps much less.

What happens after the free support ends is anyone's guess, as Microsoft has been close-mouthed about that, too. Microsoft could discontinue updates entirely once a device is out of its support lifecycle, or make updates available for a fee. The latter, however, might contradict a recent comment by Gabriel Aul, the chatty spokesman for Windows Insider, who regularly tweets answers to users' questions. On Friday, Aul said, "No annual fee for Windows 10."

Andrew Storms, vice president of security services at New Context, a San Francisco-based security consultancy, speculated that Microsoft might brandish the stick of security updates when support ends. No one should be surprised if that happens: Microsoft has often told customers that if they don't do A or B -- like migrate to Windows 8.1 Update, or dump Internet Explorer 8 -- they won't receive patches.

"I think any vendor will find it's to their advantage to get users to upgrade and they will also find a stick when time comes to get people to move," said Storms. "Or get people to pay extra for special attention."

Why won't Microsoft just say what Windows 10 support will be?

Miller took a stab at that one. "Either they're not sure [what it will be], or they're not excited about announcing bad news," he said of Microsoft's hesitancy to talk.

Storms thought Microsoft was hedging. "They needed to say something for competitive purposes, but they don't want to get caught up on anything too specific," he opined. "Microsoft bets that only a few people will still be wanting support in 10 years. When 10 years comes due, who knows what the landscape will look like?"

But Storms also leaned a bit toward Miller's "bad news" idea. "To know that your device is going to be supported for all security updates for 10 years is a huge feather in [Microsoft's] hat," said Storms. "It reinforces the idea what going with Microsoft is the right bet to take."

In other words, Microsoft doesn't want to mess with that thinking before it has to.

Look on the bright side

While some will squawk about the support change, Miller noted the upside. "They're giving customers the OS for free," he said.

But he also pointed out that the opaque phrase, and Microsoft's refusal so far to elaborate, is dangerous. "This starts people asking other questions," Miller said. "They're afraid that Microsoft will charge them for updates at some point in the future. Microsoft has beaten that down, but flexible language like this doesn't reassure people."

At some point, Microsoft will have to divulge the meaning of "supported lifetime of the device."

"There will have to be some clarification," said Miller. "There has to be. I expect there will be some kind of clarification on a Web page with a lot of legal language that delineates the rules."

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